PICHER, Okla. (AP) -- At the base of a giant chat pile, Governor Brad Henry signed legislation Wednesday enabling families with small children to move away from lead and zinc contamination in the Tar Creek Superfund site.
"This is significant legislation that complements the efforts to clean up the area by helping those most vulnerable to the dangers," said Henry, who was surrounded on the mountain of mining waste by dozens of Picher and Cardin residents.
The new law taking effect Sept. 1 provides $3 million to purchase the homes of Tar Creek families with children under the age of 6. It is estimated 100 families are eligible. Legislative leaders have promised another $2 million next year.
"It's tight," said Miles Tolbert, the Oklahoma secretary of environment. "If we have full signup, we'll need the full appropriation."
Mountains of lead and zinc mine waste, sinkholes and abandoned mine shafts mar the 40-square-mile area in northeastern Oklahoma, including the towns of Cardin, Commerce, Picher and Quapaw. Acidic runoff from mines abandoned about 30 years ago has turned Tar Creek orange.
Young children are believed to be most vulnerable to lead poisoning, and tests have shown that area children have high levels of metal in their blood. High lead levels can stunt intellectual development.
Teresa Dixon of Picher said she wants to move her 6-year-old son, Jason, out of Picher. Jason, who wears a brace on his left ankle, has had six vertebrae removed from his spine because of a tumor when he was 2.
"It could have been environmentally caused is what the doctor told us," Dixon said.
Regena Carder also plans to apply for relocation money. She and her 3-year-old granddaughter, Baily, live at the foot of the chat pile where Henry signed the legislation.
"I'm just glad they're doing something," Carder said. "It's time."
Under the law, the state will purchase homes from willing sellers at prices based on the average cost of comparable housing elsewhere. Renters will receive 12 months' rent outside the mining region.
U.S. Rep. Brad Carson, D-Okla., has proposed a federal buyout of all residents in Tar Creek, but Sen. Jim Inhofe, an Oklahoma representative who chairs the Senate Environment Committee, opposes that plan.
Instead, Inhofe wants $45 million in federal spending to clean up the site's outer rim and has teamed with Cherokee investment partners of Raleigh, N.C., for a voluntary private buyout.
Henry, a Democrat, said a federal buyout should remain an option but would only be part of the solution for Tar Creek. He said he wants the federal government to move faster in cleaning up the entire site and restoring it to its original condition.
"This step does not absolve the federal government or the private mining companies of their responsibility," the governor said.
The Environmental Protection Agency has spent more than $100 million cleaning up Tar Creek since 1995, largely replacing topsoil in yards and school playgrounds in Picher and Cardin.
That is the same cost the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates it would cost to buy out the towns of Picher and Cardin, the community of Hockerville and other land in the Superfund site.